On Tuesday night in Houston, Texas, the US Men's National Team will play one of it's most high profile games in history when it takes on Argentina in the semi-finals of Copa America Cententario.
This looks like an unwinnable game against an unbeatable adversary. Argentina have reached the World Cup finals five times in their history, winning it twice; in 1978 and 1986. They start two English Premier League centerbacks, Funes-Mori and Otamendi, two of the top creative players in the Italian Serie A in Gonzalo Higuain and Ever Banega, and possibly the best two-way defensive midfielder on the planet in Javier Mascherano.
Oh, and a guy named Lionel Messi.
So can they be beaten?
But it'll be hard.
Recent Lessons in Beating Argentina
There are lots of ways to think about this game going in: looking at personnel; looking at formation; looking at the historical win-loss between the two teams. I'm going to try to leave all of that aside and look at the few, and I do mean few, times in recent history a team has got the best of Argentina. Then we'll look at the tactics employed, and the relative pros and cons of those tactics.
Since 2011, Argentina have a record of 34 wins, 10 ties, and just 7 losses. Those games span World Cup Qualifiers and the 2014 World Cup; the 2012 and 2014 Copa Americas; the current Copa Centenario; and of course friendlies.
From 2011-2014, Argentina were 14-6-2 (WTL). The two losses came to Uruguay on October 15, 2013, and to Venezuela waaaaay back on Oct 12, 2011. As much as I'm intrigued by a relatively weak soccer nation like Venezuela beating mighty Argentina, these games are long enough ago that I'm not sure they give us the frame of reference that makes them useful for our purposes. For some context, here was the US roster from the 2011 Gold Cup.
Yeah, that's Cherundolo, Lichaj, Sasha Klejstan, and Landon Donovan. Freddie Adu off of the bench. Freddie. Adu. So it might as well be ancient history.
From 2014-15, Argentina were 12-0-3. Yikes. Those three losses were to Germany July 13, 2014, to Brazil October 11, 2014, and to Portugal November 18, 2014. The latter two were friendlies, just after the World Cup, so I'm going to put them aside as the products of a very differently prepared and oriented Argentina. That game against Germany? You probably remember it: it was the 2014 World Cup Final at the Maracana in Buenos Aires. So I'll take a moment to consider the tactics there.
From 2015-16, Argentina were a much more pedestrian 8-4-2. Here are all the ties and losses:
- Lost to Chile, 0-0 on PKs, July 4 2015
- Tied Paraguay 2-2, June 13 2015
- Tied Mexico, 2-2, September 9 2015
- Lost to Ecuador 2-0, October 9 2015
- Tied Paraguay October 14 2015
- Tied Brazil November 14 2015
Overall since 2011, that 34-10-7 record computes to a 67% win percentage. That's really really good, and I don't think you need a comparison country to know that.
But in this last stretch of games, two foes intrigue me, because they might tell us something about how Argentina can be beat. The first is that 2-0 win by Ecuador, a team the US just beat. That game was a CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifier. The second is the friendly against Mexico in Arlington Texas in which Mexico tied 2-2.
So lets dive in to the foes that outperform and the tactics they preferred.
Tactic 1: Go Toe to Toe
Five Tight Midfielders, and Counter-press with high pressing Defensive Midfielders
Example: July 13 2014 Germany-Argentina World Cup Final
To start by looking at the tactics Germany employed to win the World Cup in 2014 requires a disclaimer. ‘Die Mannschaft' started a front four of Thomas Muller, Tony Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Miroslav Klose: like, four of the greatest players living today. So comparing the US to Germany might seem insane. But let's play with it at first.
The Germans lined up in a 4-2-3-1, and essentially played Argentina straight up: equal parts possession and attack. Their two defensive midfielders, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira, are both physical defenders, gifted with speed, and excellent passers to boot. Only, Khedira got hurt in warmups, and the Germans put in Monchengladbach mid Christoph Kramer instead. Are Bradley-Beckerman somewhat comparable to Schweinsteiger-Kramer? I think I can make that leap.
As Rafael Honigstein recounts in his book ‘Das Reboot' (which you should buy):
"Kramer, a holding midfielder, was tasked with disrupting Argentina's build-up play early, as Khedira had done so effectively against Brazil. Germany were able to win the ball quickly and keep it in the opposition half, as the South Americans only started pressing the ball 40 meters ahead of their own goal." (Das Reboot, pg 260-261)
So maybe if you're the US, you follow the German playbook. Five midfielders, don't get too wide, play to overload one side or the other, and use at least one defensive midfielder to wreak havoc on the opposition in their own half.
This actually sounds great! Except the guy the US usually employs as a roaming destroyer is... Jermaine Jones, who earned a red for ‘hands to the face' in the Ecuador game. Oops. And as much as I like our American boys, nobody resembles JJ on this roster in the way they play the game.
You could go Beckerman-Bradley, and let Beckerman be the harasser, but he doesn't have the speed to get back if Argentina work quickly around his charge. Also, this assumes that the stay-home d-mid, in the German case, Schweinsteiger, can handle Leo Messi along with the left back, in this case Benedict Hoewedes. In our case, it's probably a new-to-d-mid Michael Bradley and an out-of-position Matt Besler. I don't like that matchup so much.
The ‘Toe-to-toe' scenario also assumes that Argentina are equally wowed by your offensive firepower.
Do I think that could happen here? Oh, hell no. The best the US could hope for is 50-50 possession, and an aggressively fought, high scoring game in which the US gets two or even three goals and John Brooks and Geoff Cameron become legends on par with Tim Howard against Belgium.
That could happen. The US could also get murdered, a la Mexico-Chile a few days ago.
This would be the most exciting, most end-to-end, most entertaining tactical approach. It is also the riskiest. And, based on experience, I think the least likely to see.
But with a burst of speed and a moment of brilliance from Darlington Nagbe; a Clint Dempsey or Michael Bradley free kick; and/or a Gyasi Zardes butt-goal; this *might* hypothetically work.
Tactic 2: Vintage USMNT, Circa 2002
Bunker and Counter, don't concede, win 1-0
Example: Ecuador-Argentina 10/9/15
The USMNT in the Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena eras recognized that the US players were physically the equals of any team they played. We could have strong players, or fast players, or players with better endurance, but we were never going to have technically proficient players on par with a France, a Brazil, or an Argentina.
With that in mind, the US tactic from 1994 to 2010 was defend physically, use speed to counterattack, and plan to win one-nil. Maybe get fouled or earn a corner, and get your goal on a set piece.
That's basically what Ecuador did last year to beat Argentina. Here's two writeups if you're interested.
They stayed compact and absorbed pressure, frustrating the Argentine offense. Stats don't seem to be available, but looking at other games, Ecuador has always bunkered and ceded possession at about a rate of 30-70 to Argentina. Just put ten behind the ball and hang on is their motto.
As you can see from the highlights, nothing happened for 80 minutes. Then Ecuador got a goal off a corner at the 80th, and struck again on the counter in the 82nd.
The huge caveat to this one? Lionel Messi did not play. Moreover, Sergio Aguero started but limped off in the 15th with an injury. So to use Ecuador as an example of how to win is to assume the US can bunker and counter against Argentina whether Messi is there or not.
I think this could work. The US have blistering pace in the forms of Cristian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe, Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes. Their defensive players Besler, Brooks, Cameron, and Beckerman are exceedingly tough to break down, especially when organized and well supported. The US can play for a long, 0-0 draw, and go to PKs, or try to hang that late goal to win it.
You are, of course, going to have to deal with shutting down Messi for 90+ minutes. But in this scenario, you put most of your mental energy into defense, and minimize your risk of a dangerous midfield turnover by loping the ball long from back to front. Maybe that's preferable to playing toe to toe and potentially opening yourself up for a Mascherano-to-Messi-to-Higuain-to-Messi highlight reel play. Which is what happens if the US get their pocket picked at the wrong time and place.
Tactic 3: Punch ‘em in the mouth, Take their Wallet, and Run like Hell
Score Early, and Defend. Particularly Messi.
Example: Mexico-Argentina 9/9/15
Mexico got an early goal (18') on an Otamendi foul on Chicharito in the box, then doubled it at 70' from a Miguel Herrera strike on the counter. In between, Mexico completely cede possession to Argentina , 29% to 71%, and hang in there.
This is a pretty consistent pattern when playing Argentina. Ecuador and Mexico, as I've mentioned, played 'defend and counter'. So have most teams that played Argentina in this years Copa. And last year's Copa. And the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers... and and and.
Also, Mexico fouled a lot in this one. That, too, is a pattern. If you team lacks the speed and talent to stop Messi, then kick Messi instead. It ain't gonna cover you in glory, but if it gets the job done without earning you a red, then what else would you expect to happen?
In this game, Argentina hit back. At the 85th, Messi launches an inch perfect 50 yard drone-strike that hits left midfielder Ezequiel Lavezzi, who feeds Aguero. It's a freaking amazing goal. I hope to see something like that in person. Someday. At the 89th, Aguero hits Messi coming through the defenders, perfectly times it to be barely on-side, and Argentina equalize.
In other words, when you play the Albiceleste, you assume to some degree that Argentina are going to score. They're just that good. But you try to hit them early and hold a lead, so that your team can focus on defending. This is really a variant of Tactic 2 above.
The two wrinkles I'll add to this are these. First, this means you come out like a team of pitbulls on amphetamines for the first ten minutes. Costa Rica tried this against the US last week, and nearly scored early. But then then gave up a goal, and then they played a bit sloppy, and then they were demolished. So, you don't do that. You high press Argentina like nuts, and run at full pace, and play six or eight men forward: punch ‘em in the mouth, get the early goal, and then defend for your life.
Second, and this could apply to any of the tactics I've mentioned, you need to man-mark Lionel Messi. This is, to my knowledge, not a thing that is done much in international or club soccer. It happens in basketball all the time. But world soccer generally assumes that taking one defender to follow around an attacker all game is inefficient, opens up gaps elsewhere that can't be easily compensated, and hurts your offense. But this is Messi, so I say: do it. Put Perry Kitchen or Michael Bradley on him, and rely on Brooks and Cameron with Beckerman to put out fires in the zone in front of the 18 yard box. (You can't stick Beckman on Messi. You just... you can't.) Or let the outside back mark him inside the final third: have Besler stick him like glue, and concede the overlapping fullback. The guys of Total Soccer Show suggested as much, saying that they think Argentina's right back, Gabriel Mercado, is a decoy. Leave him alone and lock down Messi. Do it well enough, get that early goal, and maybe the US holds on 1-1 or 2-2 till PKs. Maybe, just maybe, they win 2-1 in this scenario.
OK, so those are my suggested approaches to Argentina. This is a winnable game. It won't be easy, but it is winnable. Even without Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, and Bobby Wood. Even if we lack the technical skill of the Argentines. Even if we don't get a goalkeeper performance like Tim Howard against Belgium. But only if the team has a plan, and sticks with it.
Either way, win or lose, this is going to be one of the most exciting soccer matches of the year. I can't wait.